New claims for US unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level since mid-March, the government reported Thursday, in a fresh sign of a slowly improving job market.

Initial jobless claims totaled 339,000 in the week ending April 20, down from the prior week's revised reading of 362,000, the Labor Department said.

The decline in new claims, which indicate the pace of layoffs, was sharper than analysts expected. The average estimate was for 351,000 claims.

Last week's reading was the lowest since the week ending March 9, when claims hit a five-year low of 334,000.

A Labor Department official noted that claims data were particularly volatile in the weeks near the Easter holiday, which this year fell on March 31.

The four-week moving average, which helps to smooth out volatility, fell by 4,500 to 357,500 last week.

According to employment data published in early April, the US unemployment rate dipped in March by one-tenth of a point to 7.6 percent, the lowest rate since December 2008.

But the improvement came because people dropped out of the work force, not because of job growth, which was a paltry 88,000 last month.